Column: Coach and reporter recall high school sports in 2020

Reporter Paul Valencia and Union coach Gary Mills look back on the bizarre early days of the pandemic

Well, this assignment should be easy.

“Hey Paul, how about a year-in-review for local high school sports?”

Paul Valencia
Paul Valencia

No problem. 

The winter sports concluded in Washington with its state championships.

Then everything stopped.


That’s the review.

I can do better than that. And I called Union coach Gary Mills for his insight, too, because he had a very special point of view. 

It is all about timing. 

For Washington high school basketball players, the timing worked out perfectly. The state playoffs started with regionals on Feb. 28 and 29. The tournaments in Tacoma, Yakima, and Spokane were scheduled for March 4 through 7. 

The Union boys basketball team took home the third-place trophy, playing on the final day of the last WIAA-sanctioned postseason of 2020. Photo courtesy Heather Tianen
The Union boys basketball team took home the third-place trophy, playing on the final day of the last WIAA-sanctioned postseason of 2020. Photo courtesy Heather Tianen

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association issued a release on March 2 noting that the schedule would not change, but there would be an emphasis on sanitation at all the venues, with hand sanitizer stations set up in common areas. We were all encouraged to spread out when possible.

Most Americans had heard of COVID-19 by February. But no one was really sure what to expect in the coming days, weeks, months. Even the experts laughed at the notion that we would all be wearing masks. 

So that first week of March … sure, there was some concern, but certainly not enough to shut down the state basketball tournament. 

The student sections were still full of students. Parents and other adults gathered close to one another to cheer on their teams, just like any year.

And on the final day of the tournaments, two Clark County teams remained, playing on trophy day. 

The Union boys ended up finishing third in the state, coming back the day after their first loss in the season — in the semifinals — and dominating their trophy game. The Union girls lost on that final day, ending up with the fifth-place trophy. That was the first trophy for the girls program.

The Union girls basketball team finished fifth, earning a trophy at state for the first time in program history. This was one of the last high school sporting events to be played in 2020. Photo courtesy Heather Tianen
The Union girls basketball team finished fifth, earning a trophy at state for the first time in program history. This was one of the last high school sporting events to be played in 2020. Photo courtesy Heather Tianen

Also that day, we got the first hint of what was to come next. The WIAA announced on March 7 that the state debate competition, scheduled for later that month, would be postponed.

A few days later, I was helping out some colleagues in Oregon as they were covering the Class 6A boys and girls tournaments in Portland. Oregon holds its state championships the week after Washington concludes its basketball season.

Again … timing.

I was there for the final game of Wednesday’s 6A girls quarterfinals. South Medford, a team located about 280 miles south of Portland, had just won its game when the Oregon School Activities Association announced the rest of the tournament would be played with no fans.

The South Medford fans were upset. That was a long drive to watch just one game. The parents were allowed to go on the floor and get pictures taken with the players, a nice gesture. 

The next day, the tournament resumed in the morning in the consolation bracket. The first game was played with no fans. Today, we see professional and college sports played with no fans all the time. Back then, it was bizarre.

Then something even crazier happened.

Midway through that consolation game, the OSAA announced that it would be the last game played. The rest of the tournament was cancelled.

So on a Saturday (March 7), in Tacoma, the dome was full of fans and basketball teams. By Thursday (March 12), in Portland, that tournament was shut down. 

COVID comes at ya fast.

Later that afternoon, in Vancouver, there were a few more sporting events. Spring sports had started in Washington.

That’s where Gary Mills comes into this story. He is the girls basketball coach for the Titans, and he is the school’s golf coach. So he coached on the final day of basketball season, on March 7, then was on the course with the Titans during their one and only match of the year, on March 12.

“We finished 1-0,” he said last week, with a laugh.

Strange, strange times.

Mills said that during the previous week, at the Tacoma Dome, not much was out of the ordinary.

“I just remember that the only thing being different to us, a lot of fist-bumping going on when you would have shook hands with people. We even fist-bumped the referees. There was a lot of hand sanitizer that everyone was using. Except for those things, it was business as usual.

“I don’t think I said one thing to our players about Covid.”

Imagine that. Going a week without talking about COVID-19. That sounds like paradise. 

Basketball-wise, it was an incredible week, Mills said, with the crowning achievement of earning a trophy for the first time.

The next week, the coach pivoted to golf. But by then, everyone was talking about the what-ifs.

“I remember the rumor coming around this could be the last week of school,” Mills said.

Athletic directors in Southwest Washington told their coaches to keep preparing for a season, to go on until otherwise notified.

The Titans played their golf match, and the next day, it was announced that schools, and high school sports, would be shut down for six weeks. 

“We just slowly got led down a path. If we had known right then, March 12, what life was going to look like today, we would have been, ‘No way.’ We all would have been devastated,” Mills said. “We all thought we’d probably come back after Spring Break. Little by little, more and more was taken away.”

Later, in-building school and sports were cancelled for the rest of the academic year. The WIAA came up with plans to start fall sports, then had to push back that plan. Ridgefield did not have a chance to defend its state volleyball title. Columbia River did not defend its state title in girls soccer. And stadiums were empty on Friday nights. Camas was not permitted to defend its state football championship.

Then a new tentative schedule, with new dates, only to push back the dates some more. By the end of 2020, still no high school sports. There is a date for its return in February of 2021, but no one yet knows if it will happen.

The Mills home has a rule: No talking about the return of sports at the dinner table. It is a pointless — and frustrating — conversation by now. 

As 2020 comes to an end, there is hope that athletes, coaches, and fans will get to see high school sports in the Northwest in 2021. 

Absolutely no one will take it for granted.

But before we say goodbye to 2020, let’s give another salute to a couple of team state champions. Camas won its third consecutive Class 4A state gymnastics title in February of 2020. Also, Evergreen won its fourth consecutive Class 3A state championship in bowling.

It was a fine winter sports season for many local athletes. None of us knew then, though, that it would be the final high school sports season of 2020.


About The Author

Paul Valencia joins after more than two decades of newspaper experience. He became the face of high school sports coverage in Clark County during his 17 years at The Columbian. Before moving to Vancouver, Paul worked at Oregon daily newspapers in Pendleton, Roseburg, and Salem. A graduate of David Douglas High School in Portland, Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving three years as a soldier/journalist. He and his wife Jenny recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. They have a son who has a passion for karate and Minecraft. Paul’s hobbies include: Watching the Raiders play football, reading about the Raiders playing football, and waiting to watch and read about the Raiders playing football.

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